Shtisel

Shtisel takes place in Jerusalem’s Geula neighborhood and centers on the Shtisel family, led by Rabbi Shulem Shtisel, the family patriarch and a rabbi at the local Talmud Torah school. The main plot focuses on the relationship between recently widowed Shulem and his youngest son Akiva, a bachelor, who still lives at home.

VIEWER'S GUIDE

Shtisel 

Two Seasons (2013-2016) | 45-minute episodes

Available on Netflix

Created and Written: by: Ori Elon and Yehonatan Indursky

Grade Level: Middle School and up

Themes

  • Orthodox lifestyle and customs: kosher, yichud, mourning, shiduchim (matchmaking)
  • Family/generational relationships
  • Dating and marital relationships
  • Food
  • Hebrew/Yiddish
  • Art & religion

Synopsis

Shtisel takes place in Jerusalem’s Geula neighborhood and centers on the Shtisel family, led by Rabbi Shulem Shtisel, the family patriarch and a rabbi at the local Talmud Torah school. The main plot focuses on the relationship between recently widowed Shulem and his youngest son Akiva (Kiveh), a bachelor who still lives at home. Other members of the family, including Shulem’s daughter Giti and his mother Malka, appear in subplots, as do community members and friends. Shtisel is set in a religious community that strictly follows Haredi customs. Any violation of these community norms cause chaos within the family. However, the characters also reflect Geula's moderation compared to their neighbors in Meah She'arim, the adjacent community known for religious extremism.

Shtisel took the Israeli TV watching public by storm and has followed the same path in North America. Everyone is watching it, binging on it, and talking about it. What is a primarily secular audience’s fascination with this portrayal of Haredi life in Jerusalem?

Here is what critics and journalists say about it:

“Shtisel offers a humane glimpse into the lives of people who would normally be shrouded from me by all sorts of religious and political barriers.”
—Harvey Blume, Artsfuse (December 25, 2018)

“As bizarre as it may sound, a show about people governed by strict Jewish law, following ancient customs and living in austere conditions has been my escapist entertainment in recent months.”
—Renee Ghert-Zand, The Forward (March 4, 2016)

“This is a lens on a community that’s very familiar to us, and yet really isn’t at all,” [Jessica Steinberg, culture editor at The Times of Israel] says...I think it’s popular because it’s about relationships and romance – they do these things a little differently, but they’re still likeable and relatable.”
—Jennifer Armstrong, BBC (April 19, 2019)

“Shtisel gives secular Israelis, live-and-let-live Jewish Americans of all persuasions, and non-Jews alike a glimpse into the mysterious and cloistered world of the ultra-Orthodox. But when it draws back that curtain, here’s what you find: your father, your sister, your neighbor. They are you, and you are they. That’s what makes it so lovable, and that’s what makes it so fun.”
—Ruchi Koval, Cleveland Jewish News (February 8, 2019)

The first episode of the series is a perfect place to start exploring the world of Shtisel since many of the characters and themes are present. Here are a few insights and explanations of things learners might have missed or want to know more about. 

Season 1, Episode 1: “Everybody is Looking for Love”

Shulem and Akiva Shtisel, father and son, sit on a little balcony overlooking streets of the Geula neighborhood of Jerusalem. A year has passed since the matriarch of the family died. All the other children have left the nest, and only Shulem and Akiva remain – quarreling, making up, and laughing about themselves and the rest of the world. All will change when Akiva meets Elisheva. (Source)

The episode introduces us to the other main characters: Shulem’s daughter, Giti, and her husband, Lippe; Shulem’s son, Zvi Arie; and his mother, Malka, who lives in a nursing home.

The episode can be divided into three segments:

Start – 14:39
14:40 – 32:39
32:40 – End

1. Opening Song: “Where did everybody suddenly go?”
“Le'an holchim pit'om kulam?”, “?לְאָן הוֹלְכִים פִּתְאוֹם כּוּלָם” by Avi Bellieli of Tel Aviv rock band Nikmat HaTractor (The Tractor Revenge).

Where did everyone suddenly go?
Everything recedes and disappears…
Only the words are all floating.
Where do we go from here, to where?

Watch the video and explore the Hebrew lyrics.

2. Pashkevil
These black and white posters are plastered on walls all over Haredi neighborhoods. They might be forbidding the use of cell phones or the internet, demanding that visitors be clothed in modest garb, denouncing initiatives of the Israeli government, or announcing an upcoming lecture by a great sage.

3. Food
Food plays a central role in Shtisel. The series is named after a Jewish Eastern-European food restaurant by that name in both Jerusalem and Bnei B’rak. Andursky and Alon, creators of the series, sat in that restaurant when the idea for the series was born. Many scenes take place at Anshin's restaurant, conversations happen around kitchen and dining room tables, and dishes are mentioned and scrutinized.

4. Lost in Translation
Some of the nuances of Jewish thought and knowledge are (literally) lost in translation. A few examples:

When Akiva tells his father about his dream, he asks in Hebrew “What is the p’shat?” which is translated as “What is the literal meaning?” However, this expression is also a familiar one in the Orthodox world. P’shat is one of four classical methods of Jewish biblical exegesis (interpretation) used by rabbis and Jewish bible scholars in reading the Bible. It is the first of the four exegetical methods known together as PaRDeS (P’shat, Remez, D’rash, Sod). When asking his father, “What is the p’shat?”, Akiva is alluding to the most basic and obvious meaning, with the understanding that there are three more levels of interpretations.

When Akiva meets a prospective shidduch (match made by a matchmaker) at the lobby of a hotel, he pretends that his sketch book really belongs to a friend. The woman asks to see it and says in Hebrew “If it is not Chadrag” (acronym of the Hebrew letters chet, dalet, resh, gimel) translated to English as “If it’s not against the rules”. The “rules” in this case are Cherem De Rabeinu Gersom—bans put in place by Rabeinu Gershom, which include the prohibition of reading another person's private mail or papers.

5. A Haredi and an Artist
Many in the Haredi community view Akiva’s art as a waste of precious time that should be dedicated to learning Torah and finding a wife. However, in recent years several artists in the Haredi sector have been contributing to a shift in their community’s view of their craft. Haredi artist Motta Brim was part of the inspiration for the character of Akiva, and the show’s director consulted him several times to make sure the portrayal of life as a Haredi artist was accurate.

“Finishing the Black Hat” (Tablet Magazine)

6. Gemach
גמ״ח (gimel-mem-chet) is a Hebrew acronym for Gemilut Chasadim (Acts of Loving Kindness)
Akiva starts a Gemach of portable heaters in honor of his mother’s first yahrzeit, the anniversary of her death. According to Orthodox Jews, acts of loving-kindness done in the name of people who have died elevate their soul (Iluy Neshama).

The Gemach (My Jewish Learning)

7. Shidduchim (Matchmaking)
Shulem is anxious for his son Akiva, who is 24 and already considered an old bachelor, to find a proper shidduch (match). A Shadchan (matchmaker) arranges a first meeting for Akiva and a young woman. The meeting takes place in the Lobby of The Kings Hotel. Shidduchim is an age-old tradition that is followed by many in the Orthodox sector, from Modern Orthodox to the very strict Ultra Orthodox. There are levels of desirability for both bride and groom based on family background, genealogy, ethnicity, age, marital status, and more.

The reason they meet in a public space is to avoid Yichud, which is the prohibition of seclusion in a private area of a man and a woman who are not married to each other.

The issue of Yichud is also the reason why Shulem leaves the door ajar when he visits Aliza who is divorced.

“The Shidduch: How Jews Date” (Chabad)

“Ultra-Orthodox Matchmaking: Everything it's Best Not to Know” A personal view and experience of a Haredi young woman on the topic of matchmaking in the Ultra-Orthodox community (YNet News)

8. Haredi Lifestyle and Home
The Haredi lifestyle adheres to established norms, mitzvot, prayers, blessings, and customs that are strictly followed by the community members. Not all Haredi communities follow the same rules—some are stricter than others. The Geula neighborhood, where the Shtisel family lives, is not as strict as Meah She’arim for example.

The typical Haredi home has functional furniture and decor and Jewish ritual objects. The kitchen contains two sinks, one for meat (basar) and one for dairy (chalav) and two sets of plates, silverware, pots and pans etc. They are marked blue for dairy and red for meat.

Most Haredi homes will not have a television, Internet or secular books and newspapers. This is the reason Shulem opposes the use of television by his mother, and his son Zvi Arie ends up impairing the TV reception, thus preventing Malka from watching her favorite American soap opera.

The spoken language is Hebrew peppered with Yiddish words and phrases.

9. Halachic Kosher Slaughter in South America
Giti’s husband Lipa is leaving for South America for several months to work there as a Shochet (a ritual slaughterer who skillfully practices Shechitah according to Jewish Law).

The kosher meat industry in Israel imports tons of meat from South America. In order for the meat to be kosher, the slaughtering of the cows has to be done on site. Scores of certified Shochatim leave their families behind, travel to remote areas in South America, live in small communities, and work in groups for months, slaughtering hundreds of thousands of cows a year.

“Kosher Slaughtering: An Introduction” (My Jewish Learning)

“The Slaughterers of the Sacred Cows” (Halachic Adventures, also available in Hebrew)

10. Jewish Mourning
The Shtisel family is marking the first yahrzeit (the yearly anniversary of the death of a loved one) of their matriarch. The first episode ends with the family gathered around her grave saying the customary prayers and blessings and ending the day with a festive meal. Since music was barred for an entire year, Shulem is excited about hearing “Pirchey London” (Flowers of London), a Jewish boys choir with angelic voices that is very popular among Haredi Jews all over the world.

“Timeline of Jewish Mourning” (My Jewish Learning)

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

The series highlights the life of a Haredi neighborhood in Jerusalem, and is considered by many secular viewers as an entree into the life of “the other.”

  1. How is this community similar to or different from your community?
  2. What are some Jewish customs of domestic life that you knew about or didn’t know about?
  3. What do their homes tell us about their lifestyle? (i.e. what is there and what isn’t)
  4. Despite their adherence to Jewish law (halacha), the characters are not always behaving accordingly. Discuss a few instances when that happens in the episode. What does that teach us about human behavior in general?


The Narrative

  1. The first scene of a narrative establishes the story's setting, usually its physical place/time. What is the effect of having the opening scene be a dream? What else in the episode does that connect to?
  2. What symbols or metaphors are present in this episode? (i.e., snow/cold vs. heat)
  3. In what ways does Dvora’s death affect the characters and manifest itself throughout the episode?
  4. Why do you think both secular and Haredi Israelis and people around the world are so enamored with this TV series?